“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”—has to be one of my favorite opening lines in literature. It’s from The Towers of Trebizond, the 1956 novel by Rose Macaulay. It was assigned reading for one of my courses in college: Books of Western Religion. Popular when it came out, it’s a fairly obscure novel now. As a total church-nerd, however, I love it.
The tale focuses on the narrator, Laurie, and her Aunt Dot, who travel with the Anglican priest Father Chantry-Pigg to Turkey. Each has a different motive for the journey: Father Chantry-Pigg to convert the Muslims of Turkey to Anglicanism; Aunt Dot to liberate the women of Turkey by bringing her own brand of Christian freedom; and Laurie to enjoy the journey and the ancient sites.
Along the way, they meet with all kinds of people, Billy Graham crusaders, Turkish natives, and other English travelers. The novel is satirical, at times farcical, and a fun read. But Laurie has many reflections on religion throughout (why it was assigned for our course) which are surprisingly relevant for today.
She comes from a historically very Anglican family, but has fallen away from religion through the course of a ten-year long adulterous affair. She finds much of religion humorous, including Father Chantry-Pigg, who says Mass every day whether there is anyone else there or not, and refuses to call Istanbul anything but Constantinople.
But the scene that stuck in my mind recently was when the trio came into possession of an ape on their journey. Laurie takes great delight in teaching the ape many things, including how to genuflect and cross himself, reflecting that he makes a fairly decent Anglican.
Obviously a bit of satire on the part of the author, the ridiculousness of this scene nevertheless makes readers consider what it means to be a worshipping Christian. Is it as simple as doing the right motions at the right times, saying the right words when you are supposed to? Easy enough a monkey could do it?
It points to a certain understanding of orthopraxy (or doing the right things) that understands outward actions as the most important part of worship. Get the actions right, at the right time, with the right words, and it was a good worship. You can oppose this with the idea that actions don’t matter at all in what we do—it is only what is in the heart and mind that matter.
I take a middle ground between these two extremes. Clearly, a monkey trained to go through the motions is a crazy example meant to evoke a strong reaction. But actions are important. Anyone who has seen me in worship knows that I cross myself and reverence the altar. I raise the lectionary book in the Gospel procession. I think that actions do matter. But what matters most about the actions is what they point to.
The actions we take in worship are always methods of helping us make sense of what we are doing—they are symbols that point to something greater than themselves. If we start to worship the symbols instead of that to which they point, we’ve missed the mark.
But at the same time, the familiarity of patterns and actions can be a great comfort during times of distress. When my spirit feels unable to worship, my body can lead me in the patterns that are able to bring peace.
Eventually, in The Towers of Trebizond, Laurie comes to her own understanding of the role of faith and religion in her life. It is somewhere between the pomposity of Father Chantry-Pigg and her original cynicism. But I have always loved her skepticism, because it led her to dig more deeply into what she valued and to ask why. Rather than blindly accept everything or completely throw away religion all together, Laurie struggled with the hard questions and came out on the other side with a deeper faith.